AAPEX Review: Nashville's CIRCLE PLAYERS' "A Raisin In The Sun" — Circle Players , Lorraine Hansberry , Raisin in the Sun — AAPEX

Friday, January 7, 2011

AAPEX Review: Nashville's CIRCLE PLAYERS' "A Raisin In The Sun"

Review by Jaz Dorsey

"In my mother's house there is still God"

A RAISIN IN THE SUN is a drama of the most intense kind. It's almost impossible to disconnect this play from it's historical significance as a groundbreaking work of African American dramatic literature, but the current Circle Players production which opens tomorrow night at the Larry Keeton theatre hits a universal nerve - to what degree does money define who we are?

This is the question that hurls the struggling Younger family into turmoil as they await the arrival of a $10,000.00 insurance check following the death the husband of Lena Younger and the father of her two children, Walter and Beneatha. What at first seems like a blessing and an answer to their dreams quickly becomes a demon that threatens to tear the family apart. Family conflicts are fueled even further when Lena uses a portion of the money to buy a home in a white neighborhood, only to receive a visit from the neighborhood "welcoming committee" in the person of a Mr. Lindner, who offers to buy the Youngers out because the good folks of Clybourne Park don't want "coloreds" moving in to their community.

Playwright Lorraine Hansberry drew from her own family's legal battles which followed an attempt to evict them from their home in an all white neighborhood. According to a pamphlet entitled "The Real Life Roots of A RAISIN IN THE SUN" provided by The Tennessee Fair Housing Council "The covenant in the Woodlawn neighborhood where the Hansberrys wanted to live stated that 'no part of said premises shall in any manner be occupied by a negro or negroes.' There were exceptions for African American employees of white homeowners to live in servants quarters, basements, barns and garages on the premises." The United States Supreme Court eventually decided in the Younger's favor in 1940, but the years that it took clearly impacted Lorraine Hansberry's perception of what it meant to be an American in the context of a racist America. At this level, RAISIN is an outcry of historical urgency which still echoes loudly today.

But it's not really the housing issue that drives A RAISIN IN THE SUN - it's the money. The blood money. As Beneatha's African suitor Asagai comments; "Isn't there something wrong in a world where all dreams depend on the death of a man?'

At three acts & three hours, RAISIN is an epic undertaking for the actors, who are challenged to portray levels of personal agony that baffle the mind. At the same time, the pain is balanced by insights, observations and wise cracks so funny that you wonder from time to time if this isn't a comedy.

As Lena, Dara Talibah is "mother" - sincere and loving, patient and confused, but with wells of dignity that she must tap in order to absorb her childrens' conflicts. Talibah finds all of Lena's shades and levels and there are moments watching her face as she processes the relentless barrage of assaults, seeking to maintain just her sanity, that are the epitome of acting.

As Walter, Michael "Diallo" McLendon has the most grueling journey, as he seeks to find and define himself as the man of the family.When Walter rails against being someone else's servant, Lena tells him "In my day we was nervous about not getting lynched and getting to the North." But Walter can't hear that and comes so close to becoming the villain of the play - but when he does, Lena turns to his sister and explains that this is when you have to love someone - not when they're good and it's easy. McClendon navigates this perilous role with a brute energy in which the testosterone is almost palpable.

As Walter's wife, Ruth, LaToya Gardner has an equally emotional but far more poignant impact, as, newly pregnant, she wonders whether or not to bring another child in to this dangerous world. Her torment is heart wrenching. On the other hand, Gardner has great comic moments. When she is on the phone with Walter's employer's wife, with just a few lines she lets us hear that "white lady" on the other end of the phone, and you just know who that white lady is.

Everyone in the play is caught in a clash of cultures, but this is most clearly seen in Beneatha and her two suitors, the well to do, arrogant American, George, and the rather mystical Nigerian, Asagai, who courts Beneatha with Africa. Beneatha is played with great spirit by Shelena Walden, who gives us a child-to-be of the next decade, the 60s. She's a constant source of wit - as when she refers to her brother as being "bourgeois noir." As George, Max Desire is disturbingly daper, while Eliot Robinson's Asagai is celestial and serene (though still something of a male chauvinist).

Courtenay McClellan plays the rather bizarre neighbor, Mrs. Johnson, with such comedic ferocity that she all but got a standing ovation when she left the scene, and Tobyus Green is equally (but appropriately) strange as Walter's unfortunate business partner in his brief but unsettling moment of shattered manhood. Jim Manning is a creepy and curiously obsequious Mr. Lindner and young Eric William II does a solid job as Walter and Ruth's son, Travis.

Clay Hillwig has directed a production that lives and breathes in every corner of Ralph Gabriel's excellent set - an apartment so cozy that I actually wouldn't mind moving in when the Youngers move out ( I like that little kitchen!), Melody Fowler-Green' s costumes are ace and all the technical elements were in perfect order, even at dress rehearsal, thanks to the technical team of Brian Levay and J R Smallwood. And there is some great incidental music, including one of my favorite tunes, "Lucky So and So."

Kudos to producer LaTonya Turner and the stage manager (no one ever mentions the stage manager) Nicole Billups: these ladies have clearly done their jobs, because everything went off without a hitch. And this was just dress rehearsal.

For complete information on the production and the run, please click the post's title. Be sure and check out the awesome trailer - makes you think "look out for the movie, coming soon to a u tube near you."

But don't wait for that - Come to Nashville and go to the Theatre. The play runs from January 7th to the 23rd.

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